As a member of the College of William and Mary’s Redistricting Team, I would like to counter a couple of potentially misleading points concerning Virginia’s upcoming redistricting session made in the March 22 op-ed “Redrawing the lines.” Throughout the piece, points were made about the negative effects of political manipulation on school districts, centrist voters and community bonds through redistricting. It is right to mention and object to these maladies, but such evils of the political system are not the result of redistricting per se; rather, they are the perverse form of redistricting known as gerrymandering.
The practice of gerrymandering, exemplified by Patrick Henry’s attempt to have James Madison drawn out of his own Virginia district, received its name from 19th century Massachusetts Governor Elbrige Gerry and has since taken on many nefarious tendencies. Using census data, an incumbent’s opposing voters can be packed into a single district in order to minimize their overall power, or they can be dispersed across districts so they are unable to constitute a majority anywhere. In the spirit of the bipartisanship we all love, incumbents from both parties can consolidate their bases to create universally safe and uncompetitive elections. Prior to — and, some would argue, after — the Voting Rights Act of 1965, these same tactics could be used to suppress a racial minority’s political power. The advancement in mapping technologies has only exacerbated they ability of gerrymandering to delineate districts that already look something like flattened squirrels.
Given this, citizens should be skeptic when approaching this year’s round of redistricting in Virginia and throughout the United States, but one should also remember redistricting is a necessity and has the power to correct the same evils it can cause. The implication made by last week’s article that redistricting should somehow be avoided is a tremendous blow to democracy. Population shifts and growth necessitate the redrawing and reallocating of districts if we are to have one vote per person in our state legislatures and the House of Representatives. If Congressman A represents 400,000 fewer people than Congressman B, the former can be influenced by more and more consolidated interests. The incentive to vote also becomes skewed between districts. Simply put, maintaining equal representation demands redistricting.
More and more states are also opting to have independent commissions — not legislators — draw the legislative maps. Alhough Virginia and other southern states have historically been the most guilty of gerrymandering, even Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell has appointed a bipartisan commission to recommend new legislative maps that avoid political considerations. I’m proud to say the teams from the College’s government department and the Marshall-Wythe School of Law teams, after spending spring break on the beach with precinct charts and census blocks, won divisions of a statewide collegiate competition and created a State Senate map which Delegate Robert Brink (D-Arlington) plans to introduce in the upcoming legislative session.
Redistricting projects like this have the ability to correct burdensome school district breakups, to empower racial minorities, to respect county and city boundaries, and to increase competitiveness, all while maintaining the democratic necessity of equal-population districts. Through open-access mapping software, more and more citizens are able to create their own maps, submit suggestions to their legislators and most importantly, prove that legislators, are not the only ones endowed with an expertise in mapmaking. The people from all walks of life, including extracurricular clubs at the College, partaking in the redistributing process should be celebrated, not bemoaned.
It is a fact of democratic life that redistricting will and should happen. It is a complex, contentious process often ending in representatives choosing their voters instead of vice versa. I encourage all who are interested to contact their state legislators and remind them that redistricting is no longer a closed-door process. As with all democratic issues, redistricting is best improved when citizens become more active in the process, not when they dismiss it.